KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cayleigh Egelston was worried her baby might have cancer when she took her to the doctor in the summer of 2020.
It all started with a bruise.
"When I went to change her I noticed a bruise up her back," Cayleigh said. "I panicked."
Typically, babies who are unable to walk don't get bruises. Cayleigh, a labor and delivery nurse, knew the bruise on the lower back of 5-month-old Ceylan didn't make sense.
The Egelstons had good reason to worry. Cayleigh's husband, Chase, has a family history of leukemia. Unexplained bruising is often the first sign.
"That's the first place my head went," Chase said. "Like, that can't happen. That can't happen to my girl."
Scared, Cayleigh immediately took Ceylan to her pediatrician.
According to Cayleigh, the doctor agreed the bruise didn't look normal. But, Ceylan's labs came back clear.
A new investigation
After the initial relief, Ceylan was referred to a hematologist at Children's Mercy for further evaluation.
But, before they made it to the appointment, an investigation started into how Ceylan got the bruise.
"It was like my worst nightmare was starting to come true," Cayleigh said. "I got a call from Jackson County Children's Division."
Cayleigh was asked to bring Ceylan to the emergency room at Children's Mercy for a visit to the hospital's Scan Clinic, which evaluates kids for signs of abuse.
"She had to have an abuse workup," Cayleigh said. "I started bawling. I just instantly, instantly started bawling."
It's not clear who made the initial hotline call.
"I'm walking into this ER feeling like a criminal," Cayleigh said.
Ceylan underwent a series of tests, including a full body x-ray.
"I was told I couldn't be alone in the room with her," Cayleigh said. "I had to watch them strap my 5-month-old to a table and not be able to comfort her."
Ceylan's tests came back normal.
Diagnosis: physical child abuse
"There was nothing beyond that bruise that would indicate she was being abused," Cayleigh said.
However, hospital records show staff diagnosed Ceylan with "physical child abuse."
Records show the Egelstons were allowed to take Ceylan home under the terms a family member would supervise them with Ceylan.
A social worker had to visit the home on a weekly basis. The Egelstons were also required to attend parenting classes and family court hearings.
The Egelstons are listed as suspects of abuse in a police report.
Fearful that criminal charges could be looming, the family hired attorney, Kelle Gilmore, who defends families accused of child abuse who she believes are innocent.
"Most of those families have wanted to challenge the outcome of the medical diagnosis because it doesn't add up and it doesn't make sense to them," Gilmore said.
Medical workers are mandatory reporters of child abuse.
Dr. Lisa Schroeder, chief medical officer at Children's Mercy, said the law is broad and staff are required to report even the slightest suspicion of abuse.
"Imagine the devastation if we didn't report it and somebody that you didn't even know was injuring your child and we missed those early signs and the child comes back with a worse injury or something devastating," Schroeder said.
A new diagnosis, case closed
Four months after Ceylan was diagnosed with child abuse, while still working through the child welfare system, Cayleigh noticed a popping sound coming from Ceylan's hip.
The Egelstons took Ceylan to a doctor at Children's Mercy who diagnosed Ceylan with hip displasia.
"Which was causing the bruising on the lower back, rather than the physical abuse that was stamped on their medical records," Gilmore said.
The Egelstons were due back in family court for another hearing when they got the call from Gilmore.
"We got a call from her that the case got dismissed and that we were done, we didn't have to go to court and that everything was just over," Cayleigh said.
One year later, the Egelstons are still dealing with the trauma from the initial diagnosis.
"That happened to us," Chase said. "There's a bruise. We say it's nothing. They said it was — that happened to us."
Another family, another suspicious bruise
In March, Katie and Kyle Basch took their son Wyatt to Children's Mercy in the Northland.
"I felt like those doctors and nurses put us on trial there," Katie said.
Wyatt was vomiting and had a fever.
While being examined, staff noticed small bruises on one side of Wyatt's back that had the appearance of fingerprints.
"They were smaller than my pinky," Katie said.
Wyatt's dad, Kyle, said he'd been tossing Wyatt up and down in the air that week while playing. Katie said both she and Wyatt bruise easily. The Basches said it's the only explanation they could think of for the bruising.
Wyatt underwent an x-ray, which revealed a rib fracture, according to the Children's Mercy radiologist.
Wyatt was transferred by ambulance to Children's Mercy downtown for further workup.
"They took a full skeletal and said they confirmed the fracture at that point," Kyle said.
A shift in demeanor
The diagnosed fracture was on the opposite side of the bruising. The Basches said Wyatt went to gymnastics that week and never complained about being in pain, which was confusing to them.
"At that point, I asked, 'Can I see the x-ray?' And he's like, 'Well, no but I can get you the radiologist report,'" Kyle said.
Both Katie and Kyle said they wanted to know why no one would show them the x-ray films.
"That's what's so frustrating about this, they're seeing something we don't see, so please point it out and show us what you're seeing," Katie said.
Katie said she began to doubt the diagnosis. She also began to doubt herself.
"I was devastated," Katie said. "If this in fact was the truth, how did I, a stay at home mom, miss that?"
Despite the diagnosis, the Basches said a social worker at the hospital assured them they'd be going home soon.
"She made it sound like, all your answers check out, this is great," Kyle said.
But, that all changed during shift change, said the Basches.
Kyle and Katie said the new social worker wouldn't tell them much about their case.
The Basches said they got most their information from a state social worker who spoke to them by phone.
"She was actually the one who updated us about everything. It was never Children's that actually let us know what was going on," Kyle said.
Katie said she remembers a conversation with the state social worker that frightened her.
"She was like, 'Well, they're wanting to remove him from your care, they're wanting you to go recreate these injuries," Katie said. "That was the worst moment of my life. I have never cried so hard and I've never been so scared of losing my kid."
Like the Egelstons, the Basches are also listed as suspects in a police report. Katie remembers the moment she was told the police were called.
"I really lost it," Katie said. "I basically fell to my knees crying."
Katie said she began pleading with the state social worker.
"I cried on the phone to her. I said, 'I know you hear this all the time, but I did not do this. I love my child. My husband loves our child. We did not break his rib," Katie said.
The Basches were allowed to take Wyatt home under the terms that a social worker with the state would visit the home the next day.
"She immediately looked at him and she laughed that the bruises were called significant," Kyle said. "She goes, 'My 4-year-old has double these bruises right now, so I'm not sure what they're looking at.'"
State records show the social worker conducted interviews with people who knew Wyatt, including his gymnastics coach who confirmed Wyatt did attend gymnastics that week and showed no signs of pain.
The state dismissed the cases and noted the bruises on Wyatt "were minimal and consistent with the history provided by the family."
The state found insufficient evidence of abuse and closed the case.
What about the diagnosed fracture?
The Basches said they were still concerned about the diagnosed fracture. Kyle, a chiropractor, took another x-ray of Wyatt. He didn't see anything.
Katie and Kyle also took Wyatt to Diagnostic Imaging for a fourth x-ray. The radiologist report notes a fracture is not indicated.
The Basch and Egelston families both said they understand hospital staff has a duty to protect kids from child abuse.
Katie said the experience has left her fearful of the medical system. She said she also doubts herself as a mother.
"I'm in therapy for it," Katie said. "I've lost all the confidence as a mom because of this."
Cayleigh Egelston said she's also in therapy from their experience.
"I feel like I have PTSD from it," Cayleigh said. "I don't feel like I can be a normal mom who let's my kid play because I'm scared of every bruise I get."
But, both families said it went too far. For the Egelstons, they said more should've been done to rule out medical issues with their daughter before diagnosing her with abuse.
"I want there to be more than, 'I see a bruise on a child, it's being abused," Cayleigh said. "It's not always cut and dry like that. Our child had a bruise and she wasn't being abused. We weren't abusing her."
For the Basches, they said they felt judged by the staff.
"There's no innocent until proven guilty," Katie said. "There's, 'Oh, we have an x-ray of a potential broken rib and you are guilty of doing it. There was no other explanation.'"
It's a sentiment the Egelstons can also relate to.
"Guilty until proven innocent, that's exactly what happened to us," Chase Egelston said.
An inexact science
The I-Team told Schroeder about the families' concerns.
"That makes me sad," Schroeder said."We're not judging them and we're not accusing them. That's not our role."
According to Schroeder, it's not the staff's job to accuse parents or make a firm determination that abuse occurred.
She admits that when detecting child abuse, like any diagnosis, medical professionals don't always get it right.
"It's not exact," Schroeder said. "That's why the mandate is so broad."
Schroeder said she knows the process is difficult and understands that innocent families will sometimes be investigated.
"That's actually one of the things that keeps me awake at night," Schroeder said.
With evidence of two negative x-rays, the Basches asked Children's Mercy to amend their son's medical chart.
"We know we got a police report that says we're suspects in all of this," Kyle said. "[Wyatt's] file is flagged as an abusive file and something to be on the lookout for. We want it to be corrected and we don't want other parents to have to suffer through this as well."
Standing by its original diagnosis of a fractured rib, Children's Mercy denied the Basches' request.
The Egelstons want parents to be aware that this side of the child welfare system exists.
"This is real," Cayleigh said. "We didn't think it could happen to us and it did."